14 September 2023

When ‘nudge’ comes to shove

The end of August saw the final stage of a series of clean-air measures come into place in London, the culmination of a process that started in 2008 under then-mayor Boris Johnson. The final planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) has created the world’s largest low-emissions zone, but not without controversy. In this piece, our UK Head of Audience Planning Michael Lazenby, explores some of the global differences in consumers’ attitudes to environmental issues, as well as how brands need to be wary when a behavioural “nudge” can inadvertently turn into a perceived shove.

The final planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) has now happened, expanding to all 32 boroughs of Greater London and the City of London. Designed to promote public health and clean up the city’s air, the new charge means that any car driving within the ULEZ will have to pay a £12.50 (c. US$16) daily charge if their vehicle doesn’t meet strict emissions criteria. Whilst estimates suggest that only around 15% of registered vehicles in the area will need to pay the charge, the ULEZ expansion has been a hot topic within the newly-expanded boroughs, with the issue affecting local politics too; earlier this year, Conservative party candidates won elections in two outer London boroughs, primarily riding an anti-ULEZ ticket in their campaigning.

In 2022 the team at Choreograph ran a 25-market recontact study to investigate consumer attitudes around brand purpose. Whilst the study covered a number of societal issues, ranging from poverty and hunger to the rights of under-represented groups, the leading social cause within the global dataset was climate change (57% of the total study said it was an important issue, and 37% put it within the top three causes they are passionate about). Far from just being a noble ambition, many consumers are actively making purchase or lifestyle changes in response to these topics of importance; more than two in five (43%) have taken some action to support the causes they are passionate about, with a further 20% planning to do so in the next 12 months.

At mSix&Partners, we look to champion environmental issues in our everyday work. One of our Audience Strategists, Alice Dolling, has devised a framework approach using syndicated survey data to create a macro segmentation based on consumers’ attitudes towards green issues: Planet Disengagers, Planet Passives, Planet Persuadables and Planet Protectors. This framework can be applied to any audience we create using YouGov Global or GlobalWebIndex data, meaning that it can be a part of our standard profiling work across markets. For example, using this framework to size the four macro Planet segments identifies a strong proportion or Planet Protectors in South Africa (28% vs global average of 15%), whereas there are more than three times as many Planet Disengagers in the US (16%) than the global average (5%).

Outside of these two macro groups, each at opposing ends of a scale of environmental mindedness, our framework has two segments that represent the bulk of consumers globally: the Passives and Persuadables. As their names suggest, these groups are broadly open to green issues, and may take a few planet-positive actions themselves, but not to the same level as the most-engaged segment (Protectors). It would be these large, middle groups who are perhaps the best targets to be ‘nudged’ in their behaviours, as they are not outright rejectors and therefore have an opportunity to be steered into a changed action.

As popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and championed in its application to advertising by Richard Shotton, the concept of making small changes to consumers’ lives, or removing the frictions to help them make those changes themselves, is now a relatively available option within many marketers’ arsenal. Many successful case studies around the implementation of nudges are based on applying an understanding of fundamental – albeit not always rational – human behaviours in a way that can be leveraged to elicit a preferred action to benefit individuals’ personal health and wellbeing, the wider community, or even society as a whole. A review of various municipal initiatives around the world to encourage at-home recycling by Hilary Bylerly and her team revealed that, whilst nudges such as giving out free recycling bins to all households were very effective in promoting recycling behaviour, there was still a fundamental requirement around personal values; that is, the success of these nudges was tied to individuals’ levels of importance, not just the social norm of seeing all of their neighbours doing it. In these examples, the initiatives stayed true to Thaler and Sunstein’s core guidelines, in that they were presented as an easy option, rather than a hard mandate.

In terms of societal benefits, it is perhaps this intent that the ULEZ expansion was introduced as part of the wider London clean air initiatives; helping consumers improve the air in their area by driving less, walking more, and replacing excessively-polluting older vehicles. However, the implementation of the final expansion hit two significant barriers: firstly, the relatively small but over-represented Planet Disengagers segment (index 268 in the UK, compared to the global average), as well as ignoring Thaler and Sunstein’s “libertarian paternalism” concept to nudging – always preserving a choice for the consumer. For brands who are looking to gently steer their target customers down a certain path, it would always be advisable to not only ensure that that element of choice – a nudge, not a shove – still remains, but also that the behaviour you are looking to foster is not so significantly at odds with the fundamental attitudes of your target.